The sad news that Network, the finest of all companies issuing vintage TV on DVD, has gone into liquidation is a double blow to anyone who finds intelligent grownup television drama from half-a-century ago preferable to today’s often pitiful excuse. Firstly, the other companies that competed with Network in its early days, such as Acorn and Simply Media, appear to have completely abandoned the DVD/Blu Ray market, meaning Network was virtually operating in a field of one that has few potential operators to fill its shoes; and secondly, Network’s eagerness to keep releasing physical product meant it was a superior option to those that have succumbed to the dubious advances of streaming, a system vulnerable to the vagaries of pop cultural fashions, and one that can edit or remove content without the consent of the subscriber if the puritanical arbiters of permissible material suddenly declare it ‘problematic’. The timing of Network’s tragic collapse was also strangely ironic for me personally, as the very evening I heard the news I’d just finished watching perhaps what could be called an archetypal Network box-set release, ‘Man at the Top’.
The wonderful thing about Network was that it not only released remastered versions of programmes that have survived in the public consciousness as classics via regular screenings on repeat channels, but also put out series that were popular in their day yet have barely been seen since, thus failing to stretch their reputations beyond their initial audience. ‘Man at the Top’ was one such series; produced by Thames between 1970 and 1972, ‘Man at the Top’ continued the life and times of Joe Lampton, the cocksure character created by John Braine in his 1957 novel, ‘Room at the Top’. When the book was filmed a couple of years after its incendiary publication, its literary impact was replicated on the big screen, lighting the blue touch paper for the ‘kitchen sink’ era that gave the British film industry a kick up the backside. Lampton was played with swaggering charisma by Laurence Harvey in the movie, but the roots of the cinematic social realism that ‘Room at the Top’ inspired lay in the theatre, primarily with John Osborne’s groundbreaking play, ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1956. In a canny piece of casting, when Joe Lampton’s adventures were updated for the early 70s small screen, he was played by Kenneth Haigh, who had brought the eloquent antihero Jimmy Porter to life onstage in the original Royal Court production of Osborne’s play.
Joe Lampton is a beneficiary of post-war educational improvements and the social mobility that followed them, a working-class northern lad who took advantage of the opportunities available to him and transcended the limited horizons that had kept his parents tied to their humble origins. Brash, bullish and bright, once the ambitious Lampton can see this tantalising career path laid out before him, he seizes every chance he gets with a ravenous ruthlessness that mirrors the avaricious arrogance of the local self-made men who run the town – the councillors, mill-owners, and all the usual cigar-smoking Masonic movers and shakers; Lampton is desperate to get what they’ve got and he sets about it with little care for who he tramples over to get there – including women. Despite being involved with the older wife of a colleague, he also courts the boss’s naive young daughter Susan; the predictable outcome of that pre-pill period is a shotgun marriage that secures Lampton’s lofty place in the family firm. For many, that would be job done; but Lampton’s ambition stretches beyond the north; Yorkshire isn’t big enough for him.
When we rejoin Joe Lampton in 1970, he’s a high-flying management consultant, prowling the concrete jungle of the capital’s sky-scraping office blocks; he drives a flash motor, resides in the Surrey stockbroker belt, and is 16 years into a static marriage whose vows he doesn’t exactly honour. The odour of executive success proves to be an irresistible aphrodisiac to seemingly every woman he comes into contact with and I swiftly lost track of all the ones he beds throughout the series, most of whom are familiar faces from the 70s TV rep company such as Stephanie Beacham, Katy Manning, Ann Lynn and Janet Key. Joe Lampton is a fascinating character because he’s such a bastard, yet Kenneth Haigh gives us an utterly believable and honest portrayal of a man of his generation, background and class – warts and all. Whenever his long-suffering wife Susan (played with sympathetic weariness by Zena Walker) attracts male attention or appears to take a shine to a member of the opposite sex, Lampton reverts to caveman mode and all-but drags her back home by her hair. Yes, one didn’t have to dig too deep beneath the sophisticated veneer of the moustachioed waistcoat-wearing businessman-about-town of the era to reveal the uncouth backstreet ruffian with his arse hanging out of his pants; indeed, a semi-regular character played by Colin Welland (a coarse old school-friend from Lampton’s hometown) proves the one thing money cannot buy is class. Yet Lampton, by contrast, seems far more able to conceal his provincial shortcomings when mixing with the high and mighty.
Yes, Joe Lampton is a bastard; but he’s in an environment where he’s surrounded by bastards, many of whom were born with advantages he never had. This fact is made all the more stark when we encounter a character such as the one played in a memorable episode by Michael Bates, a good man married to a philandering, spendthrift wife he inexplicably worships; the character ends up as a casualty of the system when she leaves him for his best friend; he dies by his own hand because he lacks the clinical streak necessary to survive and prosper in the world he finds himself in. So, despite ourselves, we can’t help rooting for Joe Lampton because whenever he experiences a fall from grace, it’s usually been caused by an even more unlikeable, self-serving, amoral brute who puts personal gain in business above and beyond every other concern. The message is pretty clear that nice guys don’t make it all the way to the top. And once at the top, Joe Lampton soon comes into contact with the equally callous cold fish of hereditary privilege, something that finally impresses his overbearing, self-important, self-made-man of a father-in-law, Abe Brown.
To opportunists like Abe Brown, his son-in-law’s rise is a chance to feather his own nest, and he and Lampton’s aristocratic patron push him into running for Parliament. Lampton sacrifices the chance of genuine love rather than another one-night stand to pursue this aim and then walks away from it at the eleventh hour, belatedly realising the gold in the pot isn’t enough after all. The series ends on an uncertain note, though Kenneth Haigh’s portrayal of Joe Lampton received one final outing in a 1973 movie that followed the second series. Haigh is the only actor from the TV series to feature and although the film is an interesting extended episode, it doesn’t quite hit the same heights. Nevertheless, the fact the movie was included on the box-set of the series was a classic Network move; no other company would have bothered to complete the set like that. But Network always made sure its releases were of the best quality, not only picture-wise, but all the extras, the accompanying booklets, and even the original transmission dates printed on the flipside of the DVD sleeve. Nothing was left out; the company knew its niche audience and went out of its way to give it what it wanted.
I counted 66 Network releases amongst my DVDs just before penning this paragraph, and chances are there are a few more I overlooked. They range from children’s shows to grownup telly to movies and documentaries. The variety Network offered was never less than impressive, and one wonders now how many neglected series they may well have excavated in the future will henceforth remain locked away in vaults for good. Even streaming sites tend to stick to the obvious vintage shows that have been repeated to death; Network could always take you by surprise with what it exhumed, and it’ll be missed.
© The Editor